Make friends with a spider

By Liz Campbell

Most of us are a little scared of spiders, so the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) starts its new exhibition – Spiders, Fear and Fascination – with a chance to step on dozens of them. Of course, they’re virtual spiders but they’re all over the ground. In other parts of the exhibit, you can visit a spider cave, or tackle virtual spiders that come crawling all over your silhouette.

Real spiders look a little scary but very few spiders can actually harm a human. In fact, the average spider bite is less severe than a bee sting. Have we got the creepy fear part out of the way?

The ROM exhibit offers an extraordinary opportunity to learn about these tiny creatures which have been around a lot longer than dinosaurs. Well, a very few of them aren’t so tiny. But they are amazing. Spiders spin webs, dance, swim, and even grow back lost limbs.

Meet 20 live spiders – safely contained in glass cases. Interspersed are scaled-up models of spiders, microscopes through which we can see the tiniest ones, and lots of fun factoids.

Among the live spiders is a tarantula. These live mostly in the warmer regions of the world but North America has 29 native species. Tarantulas are often depicted as deadly, but this apparently isn’t true – at least, not for humans. In fact, tarantulas rarely bite; most flick barbed hairs at an attacker – uncomfortable but not lethal.

Twice daily the spider lab features live demonstrations of spider ‘milking’ to remove their venom. But it may surprise you to learn that spider silk can also be milked.

The beautiful golden cape on display at this exhibit was made from the silk of more than a million orbweaver spiders. The orbweaver is about the size of a human hand and its silk is incredibly strong. It has been investigated for medical uses and has been used to make violin strings as well as cloth. The milking project took three years and each spider was returned to nature after milking. The spectacular golden yellow of the cape is the natural colour of the orbweaver’s silk. The cape is so lightweight, you almost can’t feel it’s on when worn.

You might be surprised to learn how beneficial spiders are. Firstly, they get rid of bugs and that’s a great reason to keep them around. But more importantly, scientists are discovering ways artificial spider silk might be used by surgeons to repair damage from heart attacks. And chemicals in spider venom are being studied to assist with pain management and produce safer pesticides.

These are just a few of the cool ‘spidey’ facts and wonderful stories you’ll find at the exhibit. Yes, you’ll find Spiderman there too. But did you know spiders feature in the folklore of many countries. You’ll meet Anansi, the spider in African children’s stories. And did you know the Anishinaabeg here in Canada tell a story of how a spider, Manitoosh, helped humans learn how to catch fish by copying a spider’s web?

By the end of the exhibit, you might feel a little braver about our eight-legged friends, and perhaps even develop an appreciation for these fascinating creatures.

Spiders – Fear and Fascination was brought to Canada from the Australian Museum, with several additions from the ROM’s own collection. It will be at the museum until January 6, 2019.